Active Listening

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
― M. Scott Peck

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The Basics

The sense that we are not being listened to is one of the most frustrating feelings imaginable. Toddlers scream about it, teenagers move out, couples split up, companies breakdown.

One of the main reasons this breakdown in communication occurs is that listening (like reading, thinking clearly and focusing) is a skill which we rarely consider to be something requiring knowledge and practice.

There is a difference between hearing and listening.

We assume that, as long as we can hear someone and understand their words that we are listening. Hearing alone, however, is not enough. Among other things, we need to comprehend what's being said and why, reflect on intentions, and consider non-verbal communication.

Listening is one of the foundations of society – it is what enables us to form meaningful relationships and connections. And yet most of us haven't thought about how we listen.

As Mortimer J. Adler writes in How to Speak, How to Listen:

We all realize that the ability to read requires training…the same would appear to be true of speaking and listening … training is required … Likewise, skill in listening is either a native gift or it must be acquired by training.

Active listening is a technique for developing our ability to listen.

As a communication technique, it is used in many professional settings but is also valuable for everyday life. Anyone who has ever seen a good therapist will be familiar with the efficacy of active listening. A one-to-one therapist will listen with intent, clarify any uncertain points, often paraphrase what is said and ask the speaker to expand. A family or couple therapist will help to resolve a conflict by facilitating calm communication through reflection, open body language, and by helping couples understand one another.

As Sheldon B. Kopp writes:

The therapist can interpret, advise, provide the emotional acceptance and support that nurtures personal growth, and above all, he can listen. I do not mean that he can simply hear the other, but that he will listen actively and purposefully, responding with the instrument of his trade that is, with the personal vulnerability of his own trembling self. This listening is that which will facilitate the patient's telling of his tale, the telling that can set him free.

For the sake of clarity, we will refer to active listening in the context of two people conversing throughout this article. However, it can occur in communication between multiple people and in groups.

Listening is difficult because it involves suppressing your ego long enough to consider what is being said before you respond.

The Core Components of Active Listening

Comprehending

To communicate, we must first understand what the other person (or people) are actually saying. This is not as simple as it appears.

In most cases, comprehension occurs instantly and unconsciously. However, a number of potential barriers can prevent comprehension, including:

  • Language barriers.
  • The use of jargon or slang.
  • Difference in culture, age, social rank and other discrepancies between people.

In Eyes Wide Open, Isaac Lidsky recommends simplifying comprehension by asking ‘can you explain that like I’m five years old?.' This is the same technique we use to rapidly improve learning. Removing jargon and explaining things in your own language results in massively improved comprehension of complex topics.

Retaining

To respond in an appropriate manner, we must understand and retain what the other person has said. Not everyone will retain the same details.

Some people recall very specific details, while others hold on to the general idea. It is common for us to only retain details which are relevant for our response.

When actively listening, we focus on the other person’s words, rather than thinking about what we can say next. Suppressing our ego is difficult. It's as if we think we already know what the other person is going to say. And we fool ourselves into thinking that we've done the work: that we not only know what the other person will say but that we've thought about it before. Only, we haven't.

There are a number of potential barriers to retention, including:

  • Cognitive biases and selective listening (we will look at this in more detail later.)
  • Distractions, either internal or external (such as fatigue or a noisy environment.)
  • Issues with memory (such as Dementia.)

Responding

Conversations are active, not passive. A conversation between people cannot occur without a response.

Active listening requires careful responses which are made possible with comprehending and retaining.

An active response should show that we understand what the other person has said, have paid attention to their words and also read their non-verbal cues.

Ronald A. Heifetz writes that “The activity of interpreting might be understood as listening for the song beneath the words.” To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions. However, we must also avoid inventing meaning or colouring their words with our own thoughts. The same potential barriers apply to responding as to retaining and comprehending.

To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions.

Active Listening and Overcoming Cognitive Biases

Active listening requires an understanding of how cognitive biases and shortcuts impact our communication. These are particularly prevalent when people are arguing and disagreeing.

Consider the following hypothetical argument between a couple, Mary and John. Any resemblance to your marriage is purely coincidental.

Mary: You never help around the house, you came home drunk twice last week, you forgot to pick the kids up from school, you never buy me flowers, you—
John: I bought you flowers on Valentine’s day!

In this instance, John is succumbing to confirmation bias in order to refute Mary’s statements. Ignoring the other claims, he responds to the one which he can easily disagree with. John fools himself into believing that because he can refute one statement, they are all false.

John: I bought you flowers on Valentine’s day!
Mary: That was the first you’ve brought me flowers in 5 years.

John is now falling prey to availability bias. He remembers one event which was recent and salient, while ignoring the preceding times.

Mary: That was the first time you’ve brought me flowers in 5 years.
John: So? None of my friends buy their partners flowers, even on Valentine’s day.

Social proof is now coming into play. John has looked to their peers for clues as to how he should behave. Rather than considering how Mary feels, he is reassuring himself that his behavior is fine because it is common.

Mary: Anyway, the flowers you brought me that time were wilted and you clearly got them from the gas station on your way home.

Here, Mary is seeing a distorted view of events due to her current anger (bias from hating/disliking.) An event which previously made Mary happy is now only further evidence of her partner’s inadequacy.

The examples above are just a few of the numerous cognitive biases and shortcuts which impede our communication.

Now, let’s imagine how this argument might have gone if John had used active listening techniques.

This would necessitate putting aside emotions and ego and rather trying to understand why Mary is upset.

Mary: You never help around the house, you came home drunk twice last week, you forgot to pick the kids up from school, you never buy me flowers and I’m sick of it.
John: So, you feel I am being a bad parent, ignoring your needs, and allowing my social life to interfere with our relationship?

John is now paraphrasing what Mary has said, confirming that he is listening. It's important to note that John is not outright agreeing with Mary. Rather than seeking to defend himself, he is making sure Mary knows he is listening.

By keeping calm and showing open body language, he can then allow Mary to finish venting her frustration without interrupting. This provides a safe and secure environment for Mary to open up and express her true feelings.

John maintains eye contact and uses nonverbal cues (such as nodding and tilting his head to indicate he is listening.) Mary relaxes a little, seeing that her partner appears to be truly interested in what she has to say.

Then, John can speak:

John: What can I do which would make you feel better about our relationship?

This question is neutral and not related to personal opinion. John has allowed Mary to explore her feelings. By continuing in this way, they can turn an argument into a valuable opportunity to understand each other better.

The result in this situation is likely to be far more positive than the initial example. Even just by reading the words, you probably pictured both scenarios somewhat differently, complete with altered tones of voice and outcomes.

Active Listening as a Means of Overcoming Conversational Narcissism

If you have ever been in a conversation with someone who is only interested in talking about themselves, you will understand what conversational narcissism is and how it makes you feel.

Sociologist Charles Derber first observed the phenomenon, wherein people allow their self obsession to manifest in their conversational practices. Rather than listening to what the other person has to say and responding accordingly, many people shift the discussion to themselves.

In Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America, Tom Shachtman writes:

[Conversational Narcissism] is pervasive and rooted in our culture of individualism, a pattern that leads to self-absorption … by the use of ‘I’ statements, by boasting, by the tactic of asking questions only in order to demonstrate the questioner’s superior knowledge or to top the other person’s story with one’s own, and by continual shifting…The most frequently used written word in the language is ‘the’, but the most frequently spoken word..is ‘I.’

Derber describes this as the ‘shift response’ as opposed to a ‘support response.’ In The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, he writes:

The subtlety of the shift-response is that it is always based on a connection to the previous subject. This creates an opening for the respondent to shift the topic to himself … when serving narcissistic ends, shift-responses are repeated until a clear shift in subject has transpired … The effectiveness is the shift response as an attention getting device lies partly in the difficulty in distinguishing immediately whether a given response is a sharing one of a narcissistic initiative.

Conversational narcissists will often repeat shift-responses until the conversation steers towards them. Again.

Returning to our hypothetical couple, this might look like this:

John: I’m just really stressed about work at the moment.
Mary: Me too, you wouldn’t believe what one of my coworkers did yesterday.
John: And it’s hard for me to pay enough attention to the kids when I have this much on my plate and just want to relax when I get home.
Mary: Seriously, what she did was ridiculous.
John: What did she do?

In this conversation, Mary repeats the shift-response until John finally gets the point and switches the topic away from himself.

The narcissistic nature of this is obvious in a conversational transcript but can be difficult to identify.

Support-responses are the opposite of shift-responses — they sustain the speaker’s words and encourage them. If Mary had used support responses, the conversation might look like this:

John: I’m just really stressed about work at the moment.
Mary: Why is it more stressful than usual right now?
John: Well, one of the people in my team is on holiday for a couple of weeks and I keep getting landed with their usual responsibilities.
Mary: Have you spoken to your boss about that? You shouldn’t be doing someone else’s job as well as your own.

Notice how different those two scenarios sounded in your head.

In the first conversation, Mary was purely narcissistic and just wanted to talk about herself. In the second, the couple was able to understand each other a bit better and to see a potential root cause of their conflict.

Conversational narcissism also occurs through passive behavior.

Derber writes:

Passive conversational narcissism entails neglect of supportive questions at all such discretionary points and extremely sparse use of them throughout conversation. Listening behaviour takes place but is passive. There is little attempt to draw others out or assume other forms of active listening. This creates doubt in the other regarding the interest of their topics or their rights to attention … A second very common minimal use practice involves the … delay of background acknowledgements. Although weaker than supportive questions, background acknowledgements such as ‘yeah’ or ‘uh huh’ are nonetheless critical cues by which speakers gauge the degree of interest in their topics.

As Derber illustrates, we must not underestimate the importance of our responses when it comes to active listening.

The other person does not care if we listen with great attention if our responses do not reflect this. In some cases, a comment or question is necessary. Often, a simple acknowledgment is sufficient.

In The Plateau Effect, Sullivan and Thompson explain the folly of conversational narcissism:

Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said? Here’s a phenomenon you’ll observe repeatedly if you look for it: Two speakers, appearing to be carrying on a conversation, but really just giving two monologues, split up by each other, each one waiting simply for time on whatever stage he or she imagines to be on…Listeners usually can’t wait to leap to their own defense, and spend their time thinking like an attorney who’s planning a closing argument rather than hearing what’s being said. You can imagine how ineffective this is.”

How Can We Improve Our Active Listening Skills?

While there is no one method for learning to listen actively, there are a number of small changes we can make.

Active listening, like any skill, is developed by practicing, not by reading about it. By applying the concept to each conversation we have, we can gradually develop the ability to communicate well. This might include:

  • Educate yourself on common cognitive biases and shortcuts. Learn to spot them in yourself and others and to see how they impede communication.
  • Avoid trying to respond immediately. Allow the other person time to finish speaking, then provide a considered response. Consider first if it is a shift or support response.
  • Minimize conversational narcissism by keeping track of your use of pronouns. An over-reliance on ‘I’ and ‘me’ can indicate a desire to steer the conversation towards yourself. Aim to make liberal use of ‘you’ instead.
  • Adler recommends taking notes during key conversations. Although this may be disconcerting to a speaker, it is relevant in some situations. Adler writes: “The notes you take while listening record what you have done with your mind to take in what you have heard. That record enables you to go on to the second step…What you have notes…provides you with food for thought.”
  • During an argument, accept that people are rarely willing to change their viewpoint. Instead of becoming enraged or frustrated, seek to develop a clear picture of the other person’s logic. Using the Socratic questioning technique can be helpful for drawing out this information. Using active listening, it is possible to turn an argument into a calm discussion, where you can explain your own thoughts. Adler explains: “The logically sensitive speaker will ask you to follow his reasoning by accepting his assumptions for the time being – accepting them to discern their consequences, to see how they lead to the conclusions he wishes to arrive at…they are not axioms or self-evident truths…your task is to be on the alert to detect the initial premises…that provide the ultimate grounds for what is being said.”
  • Increase your motivation to listen. This is known as the affective framework for active listening. This motivation might be the desire to improve a relationship, follow instructions without wasting time, make someone feel better or to make an exchange as clear as possible.